ON the next Sunday he was early at church. But he had perhaps accented the occasion by driving there in a light buggy behind a fast thoroughbred, possibly selected more to the taste of a smart cavalry officer than an agricultural superintendent. He was already in a side pew, his eyes dreamily fixed on the prayer-book ledge before him, when there was a rustle at the church door, and a thrill of curiosity and admiration passed over the expectant congregation. It was the entrance of the Dows party, Miss Sally well to the fore. She was in her new clothes, the latest fashion in Louisville, the latest but two in Paris and New York.
It was over twenty years ago. I shall not imperil the effect of that lovely vision by recalling to the eye of to-day a fashion of yesterday. Enough, that it enabled her to set her sweet face and vapory golden hair in a horseshoe frame of delicate flowers, and to lift her oval chin out of a bewildering mist of tulle. Nor did a certain light polonaise conceal the outlines of her charming figure. Even those who were constrained to whisper to each other that “Miss Sally” must “be now going on twenty-five,” did so because she still carried the slender graces of seventeen. The organ swelled as if to welcome her; as she took her seat a ray of sunlight, that would have been cruel and searching to any other complexion, drifted across the faint pink of her cheeks, and nestling in her nebulous hair became itself transfigured. A few stained-glass Virtues on the windows did not come out of this effulgence as triumphantly, and it was small wonder that the devotional eyes of the worshipers wandered from them to the face of Sally Dows.
When the service was over, as the congregation filed slowly into the aisle, Courtland slipped mutely behind her. As she reached the porch he said in an undertone:
“I brought my horse and buggy. I thought you might possibly allow me to drive”—But he was stopped by a distressful knitting of her golden brows. “No,” she said quickly, but firmly, “you must not—it won’t do.” As Courtland hesitated in momentary perplexity, she smiled sweetly: “We’ll walk round by the cemetery, if you like; it will take about as long as a drive.” Courtland vanished, gave hurried instructions and a dollar to a lounging negro, and rejoined Miss Sally as the delighted and proud freedman drove out of the gate. Miss Sally heaved a slight sigh as the gallant equipage passed. “It was a mighty pooty turnout, co’nnle, and I’d have just admired to go, but it would have been rather hard on the other folks. There’s the Reeds and Maxwells and Robertsons that are too pooah to keep blood horses, and too proud to ride behind anything else. It wouldn’t be the right thing for us to go whirling by, scattering our dust over them.” There was something so subtly pleasant in this implied partnership of responsibility, that Courtland forgot the abrupt refusal and thought only of the tact that prompted it. Nevertheless, here a spell seemed to fall upon his usually ready speech. Now that they were together for the first time in a distinctly social fashion, he found himself vacantly, meaninglessly silent, content to walk beside this charming, summery presence, brushed by its delicate draperies, and inhaling its freshness. Presently it spoke.
“It would take more than a thousand feet of lumber to patch up the cowsheds beyond the Moseley pasture, and an entirely new building with an improved dairy would require only about two thousand more. All the old material would come in good for fencing, and could be used with the new post and rails. Don’t yo’ think it would be better to have an out-and-out new building?”
“Yes, certainly,” returned Courtland a little confusedly. He had not calculated upon this practical conversation, and was the more disconcerted as they were passing some of the other couples, who had purposely lingered to overhear them.
“And,” continued the young girl brightly, “the freight question is getting to be a pretty serious one. Aunt Miranda holds some shares in the Briggsville branch line, and thinks something could be done with the directors for a new tariff of charges if she put a pressure on them; Tyler says that there was some talk of their reducing it one sixteenth per cent. before we move this year’s crop.”
Courtland glanced quickly at his companion’s face. It was grave, but there was the faintest wrinkling of the corner of the eyelid nearest him. “Had we not better leave these serious questions until to-morrow?” he said, smiling.
Miss Sally opened her eyes demurely. “Why, yo’ seemed so quiet, I reckoned yo’ must be full of business this morning; but if yo’ prefer company talk, we’ll change the subject. They say that yo’ and Miss Reed didn’t have much trouble to find one last Sunday. She don’t usually talk much, but she keeps up a power of thinking. I should reckon,” she added, suddenly eying him critically, “that yo’ and she might have a heap o’ things to say to each other. She’s a good deal in yo’ fashion, co’nnle, she don’t forget, but”—more slowly—“I don’t know that that’s altogether the best thing for yo’!”
Courtland lifted his eyes with affected consternation. “If this is in the light of another mysterious warning, Miss Dows, I warn you that my intellect is already tottering with them. Last Sunday Miss Reed thrilled me for an hour with superstition and Cassandra-like prophecy. Don’t things ever happen accidentally here, and without warning?”
“I mean,” returned the young lady with her usual practical directness, “that Tave Reed remembers a good many horrid things about the wah that she ought to forget, but don’t. But,” she continued, looking at him curiously, “she allows she was mighty cut up by her cousin’s manner to yo’.”
“I am afraid that Miss Reed was more annoyed than I was,” said Courtland. “I should be very sorry if she attached any importance to it,” he added earnestly.
“And yo’ don’t?” continued Miss Sally.
“No. Why should I?” She noticed, however, that he had slightly drawn himself up a little more erect, and she smiled as he continued, “I dare say I should feel as he does if I were in his place.”
“But yo’ wouldn’t do anything underhanded,” she said quietly. As he glanced at her quickly she added dryly: “Don’t trust too much to people always acting in yo’ fashion, co’nnle. And don’t think too much nor too little of what yo’ hear here. Yo’ ’re just the kind of man to make a good many silly enemies, and as many foolish friends. And I don’t know which will give yo’ the most trouble. Only don’t yo’ underrate either, or hold yo’ head so high, yo’ don’t see what’s crawlin’ around yo’. That’s why, in a copperhead swamp, a horse is bitten oftener than a hog.”
She smiled, yet with knitted brows and such a pretty affectation of concern for her companion that he suddenly took heart.
“I wish I had one friend I could call my own,” he said boldly, looking straight into her eyes. “I’d care little for other friends, and fear no enemies.”
“Yo’ ’re right, co’nnle,” she said, ostentatiously slanting her parasol in a marvelous simulation of hiding a purely imaginative blush on a cheek that was perfectly infantine in its unchanged pink; “company talk is much pootier than what we’ve been saying. And—meaning me—for I reckon yo’ wouldn’t say that of any other girl but the one yo’ ’re walking with—what’s the matter with me?”
He could not help smiling, though he hesitated. “Nothing! but others have been disappointed.”
“And that bothers yo’?”
“I mean I have as yet had no right to put your feelings to any test, while”—
“Poor Chet had, yo’ were going to say! Well, here we are at the cemetery! I reckoned yo’ were bound to get back to the dead again before we’d gone far, and that’s why I thought we might take the cemetery on our way. It may put me in a more proper frame of mind to please yo’.”
As he raised his eyes he could not repress a slight start. He had not noticed before that they had passed through a small gateway on diverging from the road, and was quite unprepared to find himself on the edge of a gentle slope leading to a beautiful valley, and before him a long vista of tombs, white head-stones and low crosses, edged by drooping cypress and trailing feathery vines. Some vines had fallen and been caught in long loops from bough to bough, like funeral garlands, and here and there the tops of isolated palmettos lifted a cluster of hearse-like plumes. Yet in spite of this dominance of sombre but graceful shadow, the drooping delicacy of dark-tasseled foliage and leafy fringes, and the waving mourning veils of gray, translucent moss, a glorious vivifying Southern sun smiled and glittered everywhere as through tears. The balm of bay, southernwood, pine, and syringa breathed through the long alleys; the stimulating scent of roses moved with every zephyr, and the closer odors of jessamine, honeysuckle, and orange flowers hung heavily in the hollows. It seemed to Courtland like the mourning of beautiful and youthful widowhood, seductive even in its dissembling trappings, provocative in the contrast of its own still strong virility. Everywhere the grass grew thick and luxuriant; the quick earth was teeming with the germination of the dead below.
They moved slowly along side by side, speaking only of the beauty of the spot and the glory of that summer day, which seemed to have completed its perfection here. Perhaps from the heat, the overpowering perfume, or some unsuspected sentiment, the young lady became presently as silent and preoccupied as her companion. She began to linger and loiter behind, hovering like a butterfly over some flowering shrub or clustered sheaf of lilies, until, encountered suddenly in her floating draperies, she might have been taken for a somewhat early and far too becoming ghost. It seemed to him, also, that her bright eyes were slightly shadowed by a gentle thoughtfulness. He moved close to her side with an irresistible impulse of tenderness, but she turned suddenly, and saying, “Come!” moved at a quicker pace down a narrow side path. Courtland followed. He had not gone far before he noticed that the graves seemed to fall into regular lines, the emblems became cheaper and more common; wooden head and foot stones of one monotonous pattern took the place of carved freestone or marble, and he knew that they had reached that part of the cemetery reserved for those who had fallen in the war. The long lines drawn with military precision stretched through the little valley, and again up the opposite hill in an odd semblance of hollow squares, ranks, and columns. A vague recollection of the fateful slope of Snake River came over him. It was intensified as Miss Sally, who was still preceding him, suddenly stopped before an isolated mound bearing a broken marble shaft and a pedestal with the inscription, “Chester Brooks.” A few withered garlands and immortelles were lying at its base, but encircling the broken shaft was a perfectly fresh, unfaded wreath.
“You never told me he was buried here!” said Courtland quickly, half shocked at the unexpected revelation. “Was he from this State?”
“No, but his regiment was,” said Miss Sally, eying the wreath critically.
“And this wreath, is it from you?” continued Courtland gently.
“Yes, I thought yo’ ’d like to see something fresh and pooty, instead of those stale ones.”
“And were they also from you?” he asked even more gently.
“Dear no! They were left over from last anniversary day by some of the veterans. That’s the only one I put there—that is—I got Mr. Champney to leave it here on his way to his house. He lives just yonder, yo’ know.”
It was impossible to resist this invincible naivete. Courtland bit his lip as the vision arose before him of this still more naif English admirer bringing hither, at Miss Sally’s bidding, the tribute which she wished to place on the grave of an old lover to please a third man. Meantime, she had put her two little hands behind her back in the simulated attitude of “a good girl,” and was saying half smilingly, and he even thought half wistfully:—
“Are yo’ satisfied?”
“Then let’s go away. It’s mighty hot here.”
They turned away, and descending the slope again re-entered the thicker shade of the main avenue. Here they seemed to have left the sterner aspect of Death. They walked slowly; the air was heavy with the hot incense of flowers; the road sinking a little left a grassy bank on one side. Here Miss Sally halted and listlessly seated herself, motioning Courtland to do the same. He obeyed eagerly. The incident of the wreath had troubled him, albeit with contending sensations. She had given it to please him; why should he question the manner, or torment himself with any retrospective thought? He would have given worlds to have been able to accept it lightly or gallantly,—with any other girl he could; but he knew he was trembling on the verge of a passionate declaration; the magnitude of the stake was too great to be imperiled by a levity of which she was more a mistress than himself, and he knew that his sentiment had failed to impress her. His pride kept him from appealing to her strangely practical nature, although he had recognized and accepted it, and had even begun to believe it an essential part of the strong fascination she had over him. But being neither a coward nor a weak, hesitating idealist, when he deliberately took his seat beside her he as deliberately made up his mind to accept his fate, whatever it might be, then and there.
Perhaps there was something of this in his face. “I thought yo’ were looking a little white, co’nnle,” she said quietly, “and I reckoned we might sit down a spell, and then take it slowly home. Yo’ ain’t accustomed to the So’th’n sun, and the air in the hollow was swampy.” As he made a slight gesture of denial, she went on with a pretty sisterly superiority: “That’s the way of yo’ No’th’n men. Yo’ think yo’ can do everything just as if yo’ were reared to it, and yo’ never make allowance for different climates, different blood, and different customs. That’s where yo’ slip up.”
But he was already leaning towards her with his dark earnest eyes fixed upon her in a way she could no longer mistake. “At the risk of slipping up again, Miss Dows,” he said gently, dropping into her dialect with utterly unconscious flattery, “I am going to ask you to teach me everything you wish, to be all that you demand—which would be far better. You have said we were good friends; I want you to let me hope to be more. I want you to overlook my deficiencies and the differences of my race and let me meet you on the only level where I can claim to be the equal of your own people—that of loving you. Give me only the same chance you gave the other poor fellow who sleeps yonder—the same chance you gave the luckier man who carried the wreath for you to put upon his grave.”
She had listened with delicately knitted brows, the faintest touch of color, and a half-laughing, half-superior disapprobation. When he had finished, she uttered a plaintive little sigh. “Yo’ oughtn’t to have said that, co’nnle, but yo’ and me are too good friends to let even that stand between us. And to prove it to yo’ I’m going to forget it right away—and so are yo’.”
“But I cannot,” he said quickly; “if I could I should be unworthy of even your friendship. If you must reject it, do not make me feel the shame of thinking you believe me capable of wanton trifling. I know that this avowal is abrupt to you, but it is not to me. You have known me only for three months, but these three months have been to me the realization of three years’ dreaming!” As she remained looking at him with bright, curious eyes, but still shaking her fair head distressedly, he moved nearer and caught her hand in the little pale lilac thread glove that was, nevertheless, too wide for her small fingers, and said appealingly: “But why should you forget it? Why must it be a forbidden topic? What is the barrier? Are you no longer free? Speak, Miss Dows—give me some hope. Miss Dows!—Sally!”
She had drawn herself away, distressed, protesting, her fair head turned aside, until with a slight twist and narrowing of her hand she succeeded in slipping it from the glove which she left a prisoner in his eager clasp. “There! Yo’ can keep the glove, co’nnle,” she said, breathing quickly. “Sit down! This is not the place nor the weather for husking frolics! Well!—yo’ want to know why yo’ mustn’t speak to me in that way. Be still, and I’ll tell yo’.”
She smoothed down the folds of her frock, sitting sideways on the bank, one little foot touching the road. “Yo’ mustn’t speak that way to me,” she went on slowly, “because it’s as much as yo’ company’s wo’th, as much as our property’s wo’th, as much maybe as yo’ life’s wo’th! Don’t lift yo’ comb, co’nnle; if you don’t care for that, others may. Sit still, I tell yo’! Well, yo’ come here from the No’th to run this property for money—that’s square and fair business; that any fool here can understand—it’s No’th’n style; it don’t interfere with these fools’ family affairs; it don’t bring into their blood any No’th’n taint; it don’t divide their clannishness; it don’t separate father and son, sister and brother; and even if yo’ got a foothold here and settled down, they know they can always outvote yo’ five to one! But let these same fools know that yo’ ’re courtin’ a So’th’n girl known to be ‘Union’ during the wah, that girl who has laughed at their foolishness; let them even think that he wants that girl to mix up the family and the race and the property for him, and there ain’t a young or old fool that believes in So’th’n isolation as the price of So’th’n salvation that wouldn’t rise against yo’! There isn’t one that wouldn’t make shipwreck of yo’r syndicate and yo’r capital and the prosperity of Redlands for the next four years to come, and think they were doing right! They began to suspect yo’ from the first! They suspected yo’ when yo’ never went anywhere, but stuck close to the fahm and me. That’s why I wanted yo’ to show yourself among the girls; they wouldn’t have minded yo’ flirting with them with the chance of yo’ breaking yo’ heart over Tave Reed or Lympy Morris! They’re fools enough to believe that a snub or a jilt from a So’th’n girl would pay them back for a lost battle or a ruined plantation!”
For the first time Miss Sally saw Courtland’s calm blood fly to his cheek and kindle in his eye. “You surely do not expect me to tolerate this blind and insolent interference!” he said, rising to his feet.
She lifted her ungloved hand in deprecation. “Sit still, co’nnle. Yo’ ’ve been a soldier, and yo’ know what duty is. Well! what’s yo’ duty to yo’ company?”
“It neither includes my private affairs nor regulates the beating of my heart. I will resign.”
“And leave me and Aunt Miranda and the plantation?”
“No! The company will find another superintendent to look after your aunt’s affairs and carry out our plans. And you, Sally—you will let me find you a home and fortune North? There is work for me there; there is room for you among my people.”
She shook her head slowly with a sweet but superior smile. “No, co’nnle! I didn’t believe in the wah, but the least I could do was to stand by my folks and share the punishment that I knew was coming from it. I despise this foolishness as much as yo’, but I can’t run away from it. Come, co’nnle, I won’t ask yo’ to forget this; mo’, I’ll even believe yo’ meant it, but yo’ ’ll promise me yo’ won’t speak of it again as long as yo’ are with the company and Aunt Miranda and me! There mustn’t be more—there mustn’t even seem to be more—between us.”
“But then I may hope?” he said, eagerly grasping her hand.
“I promise nothing, for yo’ must not even have that excuse for speaking of this again, either from anything I do or may seem to do.” She stopped, released her hand, as her eyes were suddenly fixed on the distance. Then she said with a slight smile, but without the least embarrassment or impatience: “There’s Mr. Champney coming here now. I reckon he’s looking to see if that wreath is safe.”
Courtland looked up quickly. He could see the straw hat of the young Englishman just above the myrtle bushes in a path intersecting the avenue. A faint shadow crossed his face. “Let me know one thing more,” he said hurriedly. “I know I have no right to ask the question, but has—has—has Mr. Champney anything to do with your decision?”
She smiled brightly. “Yo’ asked just now if yo’ could have the same chance he and Chet Brooks had. Well, poor Chet is dead, and Mr. Champney—well!—wait and see.” She lifted her voice and called, “Mr. Champney!” The young fellow came briskly towards them; his face betrayed a slight surprise, but no discomfiture, as he recognized her companion.
“Oh, Mr. Champney,” said Miss Sally plaintively, “I’ve lost my glove somewhere near pooah Brooks’s tomb in the hollow. Won’t you go and fetch it, and come back here to take me home? The co’nnle has got to go and see his sick niggers in the hospital.” Champney lifted his hat, nodded genially to Courtland, and disappeared below the cypresses on the slope. “Yo’ mustn’t be mad,” she said, turning in explanation to her companion, “but we have been here too long already, and it’s better that I should be seen coming home with him than yo’.”
“Then this sectional interference does not touch him?” said Courtland bitterly.
“No. He’s an Englishman; his father was a known friend of the Confederacy, and bought their cotton bonds.”
She stopped, gazing into Courtland’s face with a pretty vague impatience and a slight pouting of her lip.
“Yo’ say yo’ had known me for three years before yo’ saw me. Well, we met once before we ever spoke to each other!”
Courtland looked in her laughing eyes with admiring wonder. “When?” he asked.
“The first day yo’ came! Yo’ moved the ladder when I was on the cornice, and I walked all ever yo’ head. And, like a gentleman, yo’ never said a word about it. I reckon I stood on yo’ head for five minutes.”
“Not as long as that,” said Courtland laughing, “if I remember rightly.”
“Yes,” said Miss Sally with dancing eyes. “I, a So’th’n girl, actually set my foot on the head of a No’th’n scum of a co’nnle! My!”
“Let that satisfy your friends then.”
“No! I want to apologize. Sit down, co’nnle.”
“But, Miss Sally”—
“Sit down, quick!”
He did so, seating himself sideways on the bank. Miss Sally stood beside him.
“Take off yo’ hat, sir.”
He obeyed smilingly. Miss Sally suddenly slipped behind him. He felt the soft touch of her small hands on his shoulders; warm breath stirred the roots of his hair, and then—the light pressure on his scalp of what seemed the lips of a child.
He leaped to his feet, yet before he could turn completely round—a difficulty the young lady had evidently calculated upon—he was too late! The floating draperies of the artful and shameless Miss Sally were already disappearing among the tombs in the direction of the hollow.